Illustration: LeeAndra Cianci
“Climate change scares me because I’m worried the world is going to end,” says Maya, 14, a Grade 9 student west of Toronto. Across the country, outside of Calgary, nine-year-old Levi says, “Climate change makes me feel bad because it’s making animals go extinct.”
They’re not alone in their anxieties. A UNICEF-supported study of 46,000 children found that nine in 10 kids are worried about climate change, and 89 percent feel that there isn’t enough being done about it.
“Climate change feels like a train speeding off the tracks and many kids feel helpless with no tools to stop it,” says Megan Walter, Education Specialist at Let’s Talk Science, a national charitable organization committed to inspiring and empowering children and youth of all ages in Canada to develop the skills they need to participate and thrive in an ever-changing world. These fears are so common that they’ve been dubbed “eco-anxiety” and “climate distress.”
What kids are learning about climate change
While school curriculums vary across the country, climate change is not yet extensively covered. Students in the public education system start learning about the environment in early primary grades. By middle school, they may learn about climate change as a global issue, and in high school, students may analyze the effect humans have on climate change and in turn, how climate change affects other living things.
They’re also exposed to stories in the news. “Kids are learning about ocean warming, melting ice-caps, species going extinct and forests burning,” says Walter. “And with the growing presence of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, kids are receiving a lot of unverified information.”
How STEM learning encourages action
Providing kids with accurate, science-based information is important and it helps uncover opportunities for change. In 2022, Let’s Talk Science worked with a diverse group of teenagers to research the barriers that prevent youth from taking climate action and to highlight opportunities for educational programming. Called the Climate Action Lab initiative, this research project also helped education specialists like Walter identify productive ways to talk to kids about climate change and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM.
“We are raising the next generation of leaders,” says Walter. “One day, our kids will be the ones in the room when big decisions are being made on climate legislation and innovation. Encouraging kids to pursue STEM education gives them the tools they will need to make those decisions with the planet in mind.”
How to teach kids about climate change
Knowing that climate change often overwhelms kids, it’s important to talk about it in a way that will empower—and not scare—them. Here are five tips from Walter to keep in mind.
Do your research
There is considerable misinformation out there about climate change. Doing your own review of reputable sources will help you answer kids’ questions accurately.
Talking about climate change can be really scary for some kids so be prepared for difficult and potentially emotional conversations. Kids increasingly feel that adults are causing the problem and they’ll be left to fix it, so it’s crucial that you acknowledge your role. After talking through their emotions, it may be helpful to come up with some positive actions that you can take together to combat climate change.
Break information into manageable chunks
Chunking information makes it easier for kids to process and retain what they’re learning. When chunking information, it can also be helpful to provide kids with small, tangible actions they can take to help. For example, if kids are learning about greenhouse gas emissions from clothing production, consider taking them thrift shopping. Climate change can feel like a problem that is too big to solve, but kids can have control over these small steps that will overall lead to positive change.
Explore nature together
Engaging in nature is a powerful way to build empathy for the environment. Spend time outside, exploring neighbourhood parks, trails and other natural environments.
Focus on the positive
It is really important that taking positive climate action should not be perceived as punishment. Many climate action initiatives discourage kids from doing things they enjoy, like eating certain foods or buying their favourite items. Instead, focus on more sustainable alternatives. For instance, as kids learn about the emissions caused by importing fruits and vegetables, take them to a local farmer’s market to learn about which of their favourite foods are grown nearby.
“If kids care about something, they will be more empowered to do something about it,” says Walter.